The Greatcoat is Helen Dunmore’s first ghost story and I find myself in two minds about it. In part, I find I want ghost stories to unsettle me in the vein of Henry James or Susan Hill and this did not really unsettle me. However it take the ghost story in a slightly different direction, one more in the vein of Penelope Lively or Phillipa Pearce and explores the inner hurt of the landlady.
Is, short for Isabel, and her husband, Philip are recently married and renting a place from an ogre of a landlady. Her husband, a doctor who is junior in the Yorkshire practice, is often away citing the saving up for a house of their own for the hours he works. Is finds a musty great coat and uses it as a covering one chilly evening. She hears a knocking at the window and sees an airman. Inviting him in, she begins an affair which earns her the approbation of the landlady.
The airman seems oddly physical and interacts with the real world quite normally, drinking gin and driving his motorbike. Desires make the ghostly real and perhaps it talks about the loneliness of the two women. Is’s perceptions of her landlady, Elizabeth, are shown to be false as she digs into her history. It reminds the reader about how we forget the horrors of war and local tragedy whilst easily condemning those involved. To some degree the ghost story relies on the hidden history for its kick, its way of revealing the darker side of people. In this sense we come back to the Monleon vision of the fantastic as revealing the darker side of the Enlightenment and the shame of illicit love is one of the oldest engines of horror. In a small village, hidden histories are often widely known but never spoken about; whispered rather than annunciated.
The quiet strength of the ghost story (which is at its best in the short story or novella form) is its way of revealing the misplaced assumptions of the main protagonist. Is mistakes the ghost’s words for her and never really understands what this means for her landlady as she careens towards her own happiness and keeps the story alive. Neither ever really move on and maintain the cycle.
Dunmore’s novella is a fine story of the effects of a war time romance in a small English village. She partially explores the world of lonely women but seems to come back to the idea of fulfilment being found in having a family. There is the potential for the ghost father to be involved but equally he is trapped in his own false truth. Is never really moves on either, she hopes to but still maintains the small town village mentality that she starts with. Apart from Elizabeth ending up in hospital, there is no real end to the story. The world is not unsettled but put back together again. I enjoyed the way that Dunmore takes the story but I am not wholly convinced that this comes across as an English ghost story.